One night in particular stands out for Hussein Thahir. Partly it is because the paramedic, now 30, had managed to secure a few hours of rest — a rare occurrence during the relentless 51-day bombardment that was Israel’s 2014 military assault on Gaza.
Mostly it is the memory of a young girl he pulled from the rubble.
Two years have now passed since his radio came alive the early morning of 4 August, disturbing his sleep.
“I still have nightmares about it,” said Thahir, an emergency responder of 10 years experience.
It was a hot night and the man on the radio was screaming about a missile strike on a home near the Tawba mosque in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. Reports said an air raid had targeted the home of the Abu Nejem family in a crowded neighborhood and while residents were home. There had been no warning.
By the time the emergency crews got there, remembered Thahir, it was a scene of pure devastation: “It looked like an earthquake had hit the area.”
The electricity supply was off, so the team had to work in the light of their handheld torches or those mounted on their helmets. The Abu Nejem house itself was completely destroyed. The team prepared itself to bring out the bodies.
A haunting experience
One of the neighbors told them that an entire family was buried under the ruins, Thahir told The Electronic Intifada.
The team had started to dig when he heard a low moaning from the rubble. He trained his light and called out. Pushing heavy stones and rubble out of the way, Thahir and colleagues finally found a nearly completely buried young girl, her face bloodied and bruised.
The team went into overdrive. Thahir administered oxygen to the girl through her nose and tried to reassure her. It took an hour and a half, but they finally got her out. Hussein stayed with her, his hand supporting her head as she lay prone next to the ruins of her home.
It was not enough. Two hours after they first found her, Shaima Qassem, 14, took her last breath.
“Shaima still haunts me,” said Thahir. “I can’t get her out of my mind.”
Ten people died in the strike on the Abu Nejem house. Eight were civilians and two were members of a Palestinian resistance group, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Three were children, the youngest of them was just 3. Twenty-two civilians were wounded, among them 10 children.
On 7 July 2014, Israel began its “Operation Protective Edge,” a military assault on the Gaza Strip that was to cost 2,251 Palestinians their lives, including 551 children, injuries to more than 11,000 people and the full or partial destruction of more than 18,000 homes and buildings.
But these figures only tell part of the story. Scars have been both physical and psychological, especially for those on the sharp end of things, health professionals and others whose work has seen them directly confronted with the misery, suffering and loss of that 2014 assault.
Emergency responders, medics, ambulance drivers and others often found themselves in the firing line and many were injured or killed in the line of duty. Health facilities themselves were also directly targeted during the aggression. According to the World Health Organization, 17 hospitals and 56 primary health care facilities were damaged during the onslaught, with one hospital and five PHCs destroyed completely.
Forty-five ambulances were damaged or destroyed, either after a direct strike or because of collateral damage.
In all, 23 health workers died as a direct result of the violence, 16 of them while on duty. Seven were killed in their homes while 83 were injured, the majority ambulance workers. Together with the targeting of health facilities, WHO wrote in their September 2014 report on the impact of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, “this is a gross violation of International Humanitarian Law.”
“Every time we received a call, we put in our minds that we may never come back,” Thahir said. “Israel always intends to target Palestinian paramedics, to stop them doing their work.”
Shaima’s body was taken to the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip. Shehada Omran was the coroner to whom the task fell to examine the slight body of the 14-year-old.
“When they brought her body, I had to wipe the blood off her face. During a quick examination, it became clear to me that there was internal bleeding in the lungs and the whole digestive system had been shredded,” Omran, 44, said.
In his 10 years in the profession, Omran has seen plenty of traumatic cases. And, like Thahir, some simply won’t leave him. He remembers the Eid holiday that year when three children — “nothing more than pieces of meat” — arrived to the hospital. “It took me three hours to separate them and take them to the mortuary,” he said.
From rubble to dust
Omran is convinced that the damage suffered by Shaima could only have been wrought by special munitions. Like other medical professionals in Gaza who worked during that 51-day assault, the coroner accused the Israeli military of using experiemental weapons during the offensive.
He said the small amount of shrapnel damage to the body of Shaima did not seem sufficient to cause the amount of internal damage the girl suffered and suggested that Israel was using new weapons capable of causing such damage without leaving too many marks externally. He said he had seen a number of similar wounds on other bodies during the offensive.
He is also convinced that the 2014 war saw a repeat of the use of white phosphorous that had been used by Israel in its 2008-09 “Cast Lead” assault. Many bodies, he said, were brought in with white material on them, similar to that exhibited in 2009, when Israel said it had used the weapon — which is prohibited for use over populated areas — in a legitimate manner. In 2013, the military announced it would no longer use the weapon.
Omran kept working throughout the 51 days. But when the fighting finally died down, he sought professional help.
“When the war ended, the scenes of dead and defaced bodies didn’t stop flashing across my mind. I lost my social connections for a while, I wasn’t able to sit with my wife and children as I used to. All I wanted was to be alone.”
He turned to a friend, Khaled al-Buheisi, a psychiatrist with the Ministry of Health who also runs a clinic in the Nuseirat refugee camp. Buheisi immediately signed him up for intensive therapy sessions and started him on a two-month course of antidepressants.
“Almost 60 percent of Palestinians in Gaza suffered some form of psychological disorder after the war,” al-Buheisi told The Electronic Intifada. Indeed, immediately after the offensive, UNICEF estimated that well over half of Gaza’s children were in need of psychosocial or child protection support.
Earlier this year, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor estimated that 55 percent of Palestinians in Gaza suffer clinical depression after nearly 10 years of an Israeli blockade and three wars.
And though no specific studies on health care professionals have so far come out, al-Buheisi argued that a far greater proportion of those directly exposed to the violence of 2014 suffered emotional scars.
“I’d say most [health professionals] suffered psychological problems. Everyone who were close to the bodies of martyrs would have been confronted with images that the human mind cannot forget.”
Anecdotally, the doctor added, most of his friends in the profession “took pain relievers or sedatives until they gradually recovered.”
No space for the dead
Ramadan Shaban, 50, is the undertaker to whom Shaima’s body eventually arrived. The day he prepared Shaima was one that stood out in his memory.
“It was a day full of sadness; I had to shroud eight martyrs from one bombing.”
And that was not the worst night Shaban remembers. Just a few nights before, on 31 July 2014, he had been on duty when the Kamal Adwan hospital was notified about the Salam Tower bombing.
“I have never been so shocked. I had no choice but to put the martyrs in plastic sacks before getting them into graves.”
“When I got home, my wife didn’t allow me to enter the house before she had sprayed water and cleaned off all the blood that covered me.”
Traditions are different for those slain in war and those who die otherwise. In normal circumstances, Shaban will help relatives wash and shroud bodies before burial. But those slain in war are considered martyrs and are buried as is, with only a shroud covering their bodies.
The job itself is considered a religious function that secures special favor from God and is reserved for the pious. Paid work in normal times, during war and conflict, the job is performed on a voluntary basis.
For Shaban, it allows him “to get closer to God, and for God to forgive my sins.”
But that doesn’t mean it is not exhausting. On the day he shrouded Shaima’s body, Shaban prepared 17 others for burial. And with space at a premium, Shaban had no choice but to find what was available in the nearby Falluja graveyard.
There were just two empty spaces: Shaima was buried with eight of her relatives, four to a grave.
Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.